What is the anatomy of the esophagus in gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)?

Updated: Oct 16, 2020
  • Author: Marco G Patti, MD; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
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The esophagus is divided into three parts: cervical, thoracic, and abdominal. The body of the esophagus is made up of inner circular and outer longitudinal muscular layers. The proximal third of the esophagus is striated muscle, which transitions to smooth muscle in the distal two thirds. The proximal esophagus contains the upper esophageal sphincter (UES), which comprises the cricopharyngeus and thyropharyngeus muscles.

The distal thoracic esophagus is located on the left side of midline. As the thoracic esophagus enters the abdomen through the esophageal hiatus in the diaphragm, it becomes the abdominal esophagus. The hiatus is formed by the right crus of the diaphragm, which forms a sling around the esophagus with the right and left pillars, so that the esophagus narrows when the diaphragm contracts. [12, 13, 14] The actual contribution the diaphragm provides in maintaining an adequate length of intra-abdominal esophagus is not clearly understood; however, careful identification and approximation of the pillars during surgical treatment is crucial for preventing recurrence of reflux disease.

At this level, the phrenoesophageal ligament or membrane (see the image below), which is the reflection of the subdiaphragmatic fascia onto the transversalis fascia of the anterior abdominal wall, also encircles the esophagus. A prominent fat pad located on the anterior surface of the esophagus marks the lower limit of the phrenoesophageal ligament, which corresponds to the esophagogastric junction. This junction lies in the abdomen and forms the angle of His. The acute angle and the length of abdominal esophagus both contribute to the normal closure of the esophagus when intragastric and intra-abdominal pressures are high.

Relationship of the phrenoesophageal ligament to t Relationship of the phrenoesophageal ligament to the diaphragm and esophagus.

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